Werner Herzog's German Comeback Cinema Legend Heads Berlinale Jury

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Part 3: Walking Himself into Intoxication


The only way to truly come close to Herzog is to follow his self-mythologizing as a lonely combatant, fighting, to the point of total exhaustion, for his films and his convictions. In 1974, when film historian Lotte Eisner, one of Herzog's idols, was ill and near death in Paris, the director walked from Munich to the French capital in the middle of the winter.

"It was clear to me that if I did it, Eisner wouldn't die," he says. "It wasn't superstition, however, but something the Catholic Church calls assurance of salvation -- an expression one should treat with great caution. I wasn't surprised that Lotte Eisner had already been released from the hospital when I arrived in Paris."

In 1984, when former German Chancellor Willy Brandt seemed to be distancing himself from the goal of reunification, Herzog walked around Germany, "always carefully following the border, because it was clear now that only poets could provide unity." He walked from southern Bavaria to the Danish border, but then he fell ill and had to abandon the undertaking. Nevertheless, it had been enough: The Berlin Wall came down five years later.

Herzog has a penchant for walking himself into ecstasy. He is not interested in excessive drinking or drug abuse. For him, intoxication is something that takes hard work, even suffering. After "a few kilometers on foot I know that I have taken leave of my senses," Herzog writes in his book "Of Walking in Ice," an account of his trek from Munich to Paris. "That knowledge comes from the soles of my feet."

The world becomes accessible to those who walk, he tells the students who have made the pilgrimage to Thessaloniki to hear him speak. Herzog, who once ate one of his shoes in front of hundreds of people, tells them about the sensation of hunger and exhaustion, and about how one penetrates more deeply in the real world with every step of a trek. He speaks with an extremely authoritative voice that sometimes sounds as if it were coming directly from the Biblical burning bush.

'I Am the Hornet that Stings'

Herzog doesn't believe that a documentary filmmaker has to suppress his subjectivity. "I'm not a fly on the wall that simply observes," he says. "I am the hornet that stings." There is no "yes, but" in his universe, no qualifying, no making allowances for things. "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder," he says in the narration of "Grizzly Man." Timothy Treadwell, the subject of the film, believed that the bears loved him. But then they devoured him.

The truth, says Herzog, doesn't emerge on its own, but through staging, even in documentary films. There is no other filmmaker who violates the boundary between the documentary film and the feature film as consistently as Herzog. This led to a clash of cultures during the shooting of his first Hollywood feature, "Rescue Dawn" (2006), when some members of the team objected to his method.

"Werner hates anything artificial," says Peter Zeitlinger, who has been Herzog's cameraman since the mid-1990s. "That's why he's constantly running away from the sluggish Hollywood system. He ignores the fact that there are hundreds of people on the set. We grab the camera and, with three or four people, shoot somewhere away from the hustle and bustle. Werner never takes the paved road, but always the dirt track."

'Wildly Anarchic'

Herzog requires minimal budgets and very little time for his films. "Werner is the faster director I've ever worked with," says Eva Mendes, who plays the girlfriend of the Nicolas Cage character in "Bad Lieutenant." The film, which is loosely based on Abel Ferrara's dark 1992 thriller "Bad Lieutenant," is a jarring and dirty crime movie that takes every possible detour from the plot.

"The film is full of life and wildly anarchic. There is a very distant echo of a Bavarian soul behind it," says Herzog. "I've never abandoned my culture. I shoot Bavarian films, no matter where I am." What's the difference between a German and a Bavarian film? "It's like the difference between Kaiser Wilhelm of Prussia and Ludwig II of Bavaria," he says, in a reference to the famously eccentric Bavarian monarch who built Neuschwanstein castle.

And now he is traveling to Berlin, the city of Kaiser Wilhelm, where he will have to watch at least 20 films in 10 days, more than he usually watches in an entire year. "Judging films isn't quite kosher. It's the kind of thing you do with prize cattle at an agricultural fair." But Herzog wouldn't be true to form if he simply accepted the rules as they were.

"I'm trying to introduce an unusual voting procedure," he says. "It's similar to the way votes were held during the medieval monastic reforms." Under his plan, each member of the jury will receive one additional vote when making the awards, "to give more weight to one of his or her decisions." In other words, a jury member will be able to make his voice heard, even if he or she is not in the majority.

It's the old Herzog principle: Always in the minority, but still ending up in the majority.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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symewinston 02/12/2010
1. welcome back
I am a fan of his. He really goes over the top.The combination of him and Kinski, the father of that gorgeous Natassja,was explosive. Both of them madmen, but creative madmen. My favourite film of his is of course, "Aguirre, the wrath of God". The opening shot of the ant file of 'conquistadores' climbing the jungle mountain is unforgettable. It is an extreme long shot, something John Ford would have appreciated, for it shows how diminute, how insignificant man is, and how grandious his delusions. The shot forecast the end, these little ant like figures haven't got a chance. Of course, the Spaniards conquered most of the Americas, excluded Brasil, which was allocated to Portugal. A handful of them secured Mejico and California and Texas and Florida for the Spanish crown. Other conquistadores reached to the south of Chile. Herzog, shares their spirit
BTraven 02/15/2010
2.
Zitat von symewinstonI am a fan of his. He really goes over the top.The combination of him and Kinski, the father of that gorgeous Natassja,was explosive. Both of them madmen, but creative madmen. My favourite film of his is of course, "Aguirre, the wrath of God". The opening shot of the ant file of 'conquistadores' climbing the jungle mountain is unforgettable. It is an extreme long shot, something John Ford would have appreciated, for it shows how diminute, how insignificant man is, and how grandious his delusions. The shot forecast the end, these little ant like figures haven't got a chance. Of course, the Spaniards conquered most of the Americas, excluded Brasil, which was allocated to Portugal. A handful of them secured Mejico and California and Texas and Florida for the Spanish crown. Other conquistadores reached to the south of Chile. Herzog, shares their spirit
I do not think that it was his best “Amazon”-movie – “Fitzcarraldo” who tried to appease native people blocking the waterway so his boat could not continue with a Caruso record much more interesting. Perhaps the “Teatro Amazonas”, one of the most attractive operas in the world, inspired Herzog to make the movie.
symewinston 02/16/2010
3. kinky
Zitat von BTravenI do not think that it was his best “Amazon”-movie – “Fitzcarraldo” who tried to appease native people blocking the waterway so his boat could not continue with a Caruso record much more interesting. Perhaps the “Teatro Amazonas”, one of the most attractive operas in the world, inspired Herzog to make the movie.
I agree that “Fitzcarraldo” is a different movie. The hauling of the steamer up the mountain and later the climax of the ending make terrific cinema. This is pure Herzog. The combination Herzog-Kinski was certainly mad but artistically mad. One thing for sure it was bigger than the sum of the parts. “Aguirre” is the kind of tragedy Shakespeare could have written. It is a more profound movie than “Fitzcarraldo” although the latter is so crazy. Kinski in the movie is a madman but a madman with a plan, or too many failed plans. It is the audacity, the grandiosity of the enterprise, the dedication that makes his madness attractive to the character played by Claudia Cardinale. Maybe the Indians also admired his craziness and hence helped him. Kurt in “Heart of Darkness” goes crazy because of circumstances, he goes native. But Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo’ doesn’t need help from the jungle. He is a madman and the only place wild and crazy enough for him to act out his grandiose failures (all his plans end up in failure) is the Peruvian jungle. The other characteristic of Herzog is that his movies are for ‘real’, no extras to speak of, no sets or special effects. The steamer is real and they really pushed it across the mountain, the river is real and Kinski the actor and Kinski the person were one and only. I saw once a German documentary about Kinski and one of the people interviewed in it was of course Herzog, he told many anecdotes of their lives together and why they bonded in this crazy manner. Hard to believe “Fitzcarraldo” was shot so long ago, in 1982.
BTraven 02/22/2010
4.
Zitat von symewinstonI agree that “Fitzcarraldo” is a different movie. The hauling of the steamer up the mountain and later the climax of the ending make terrific cinema. This is pure Herzog. The combination Herzog-Kinski was certainly mad but artistically mad. One thing for sure it was bigger than the sum of the parts. “Aguirre” is the kind of tragedy Shakespeare could have written. It is a more profound movie than “Fitzcarraldo” although the latter is so crazy. Kinski in the movie is a madman but a madman with a plan, or too many failed plans. It is the audacity, the grandiosity of the enterprise, the dedication that makes his madness attractive to the character played by Claudia Cardinale. Maybe the Indians also admired his craziness and hence helped him. Kurt in “Heart of Darkness” goes crazy because of circumstances, he goes native. But Kinski in “Fitzcarraldo’ doesn’t need help from the jungle. He is a madman and the only place wild and crazy enough for him to act out his grandiose failures (all his plans end up in failure) is the Peruvian jungle. The other characteristic of Herzog is that his movies are for ‘real’, no extras to speak of, no sets or special effects. The steamer is real and they really pushed it across the mountain, the river is real and Kinski the actor and Kinski the person were one and only. I saw once a German documentary about Kinski and one of the people interviewed in it was of course Herzog, he told many anecdotes of their lives together and why they bonded in this crazy manner. Hard to believe “Fitzcarraldo” was shot so long ago, in 1982.
Kinsky was not his first choice, originally he planed to give the chief part Mick Jagger who travelled to Manaus and even produced a scene (the one on the spire where Kinsky rings the bells frantically) together with Herzog, but later decided it would be better to leave because of the feeling all went a bit crazy. So Kinsky was engaged. I think “Fitzcarraldo”, despite all the craziness, is much more human. Perhaps Herzog wanted to show us that it is possible to conquer a country respectively to make virgin parts of earth urban without brutality and the satisfaction of lowest needs of natives which settlers were able to arouse when they, for example, offered Indians some cheap pearls. The weapon used here is music, Caruso to be more precise. “Aguirre” is about fanatic, degenerated and cold Spanish conquistadors who are eager to find El Dorado.
symewinston 02/22/2010
5. El Dorado
Spanish 'cold' ? We are always labelled : passionate, hot headed, loud, sentimental etc but 'cold' ? Germans are said to be 'cold'. I think Germans are romantic and the British cold.
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